Sunday, January 16, 2011

Plato is not Kant

Kant’s self-styled “Copernican revolution” was a turning inward, to the study of the mind, for solutions to the perennial problems of philosophy. Kant is, among other things, something of a reactionary. Writing at the end of the century of the Enlightenment he sought to defend Christianity, freedom and morality from the threat posed, as he saw it, by empiricism’s atheistic, amoral worldview. Particularly Kant tried to devise an antidote to Hume, and realized that Hume’s Lilliputian psychology, with its denial that anything like the “mind” could even be said to exist beyond the “impressions” caused by sensory experience, was a weak spot in the empiricist argument. Developing an ambitious account of the way the mind organized the “sensory manifold” with a conceptual framework of its own (including the “concepts” of space, time, cause and effect, multiplicity etc), Kant contained the world as understood by the new natural science within a mental representation: the “phenomenal” world was the world as represented by the rational mind, not to be confused with the actual, “noumenal” world.

Kant’s revolution has practically defined philosophy, certainly popular philosophy, ever since. From the German-language transcendental idealists, psychoanalysts, phenomenologists and critical theorists to the French-language existentialists, structuralists and deconstructionists to the English-language phenomenalists, language philosophers and, yes, cognitive scientists, it is hard to find any major philosophical movement of the last two hundred years that does not reflect the influence of Kant. He is one of the few canonical philosophers, whose influence can be seen in the views of the general public, including a great many people who have never heard of him or who do not appreciate that their own views are substantially Kantian. His message that our own minds broadly condition “how we see things” is congenial to a modern world of great cultural, ethnic and political diversity (notwithstanding the fact that Kant himself thought that the rational mind, qua rational, was the same for all).

Although Kant was engaged in a close struggle with Enlightenment empiricism his revolution was not a turning back of the clock. He presented an alternative not only to the empiricists but to the classical metaphysical tradition as well. The eclipse of explicitly metaphysical philosophy for much of the 20th century is of course due to some extent to the cultural impact of modern science, but it also reflects Kant’s core argument that psychological epistemology is first philosophy. What license have we, stuck as we are inside our heads, to make metaphysical speculations about “the external world”?

As a consequence of this it is now difficult for us to appreciate Plato, that most metaphysical of philosophers. So deeply and widely internalized is Kant’s thesis - that the conceptual order of the world is a projection from the mind onto the world - that many people simply cannot hear Plato anymore. In fact many people, even some philosophy professors and certainly a great many students, simply believe that Plato is Kant: the Platonic universals are Kant’s categories. What else could they be, when it is taken as axiomatic that the mind constructs a representation of the world? A smart student, in a typical but relatively explicit exchange, insisted that there was no such thing as the property of circularity or, for that matter, the set of circular concrete particulars: our minds create such categories out of whole cloth, apparently: and this was the view that he ascribed to Plato (he thought that he knew nothing of Kant). He was not at all impressed when I pointed to the two identical circular ceiling fans. Similarity itself, he understood, was a projection of the mind, a feature of the mental representation. As for the textual evidence (which in reality is clear and systematic), Plato is gnostic, all riddles; no one can really understand him. After all, he can’t mean what he is manifestly saying. Attempts to disabuse people of these notions, when not rejected out of hand, are met with bewilderment, anger, and various stages of grief and disillusionment. The slightly more sophisticated perceive that Plato is a bad, bad influence, putting us all at risk of totalitarian dystopia with his irresponsible foundationalism. One of my students told me that her law professor informed the class that he would have voted for Socrates’ execution.

Ah, well. Forgive this old classroom veteran my hobby-horses. Suffice it to say that, for good or ill, Plato is not Kant. Plato is making assertions about the ontology of the universe (of being); just what Kant and his followers claim cannot be done. Listening to what Plato has to say will help us to develop a resolution of the problem of rationality, at least insofar as this problem is one of the mind-body problems. I am not here trying to determine exactly what Plato the individual man actually believed in its fine points. I am not an historian of philosophy. My interest in Plato is the same as my interest in Hilary Putnam or John Searle or Jerry Fodor or for that matter the person sitting next to me on an airplane: if they have interesting ideas that inspire me in my own thinking I am grateful for the acquaintance. The reader whose principal interest is in contemporary philosophy of mind can rest assured that that is my principal interest as well, and that I am not wandering off into exegesis for its own sake. It’s just that I sincerely believe that Plato is the best exemplar of the best argument for resolving the problem of rationality.


  1. If Kant is not plato, then tell me the difference between a Form and a thing-in-itself or categorical imperative or noumenon

  2. @philonew, The difference is that for Kant, the transcendental idealist, "circularity" for example is a mind-dependent property/category, whereas for Plato "circularity" is both matter-independent AND mind-independent. "Forms" exist in the same cosmos as matter, although the principles of their interaction is unclear.

  3. But AI did not ask you about circularity or anything like that, but rather, specifically, the thing-in-itself compared to a Form. So, if, as you say,"Forms" exist in the same cosmos as matter" and the thing-in-itself is also part of the cosmos of matter, it seems to me then that Kant unwittingly repeats the same concept of Plato, but in a different sauce with a different name.

  4. Plato has no notion of a "thing-in-itself" if you are thinking about concrete particulars. Nor does he entertain the Cartesian/Kantian idea that the world as we experience it is a (mere) representation that is essentially mental. The people in the cave cannot perceive a higher form of being, The Good, which can only be understood through a rigorous dialectic of reason. Plato's ontology allows degrees of being: universals are more real than particulars. Kant thinks he is thinking about the conceptual structure of the representing mind. Plato thinks he is thinking about the metaphysics of the universe, just what Kant insists one cannot do.
    It is true that they are both rationalists: only Kant, like Descartes, locates rationality in the mental (and emanating , somehow, from God), while Plato thinks that The Good is a mind-independent form of being that makes the universe intelligible, even if there were no minds to grasp it. Kant is in the head, Plato (and Aristotle) take the form/matter distinction to be a general metaphysical distinction, out in the world.

  5. Thanks for your post. As a meagre student of Kant, and a gluttonous student of Plato, I haven't even gotten to the point yet of confusing them. But now, when I do, I'll know not to confuse them.

  6. Thanks for your post. As a meagre student of Kant, and a gluttonous student of Plato, I haven't even gotten to the point yet of confusing them. But now, when I do, I'll know not to confuse them.

  7. Wittgenstein on patrolApril 8, 2012 at 11:14 AM

    Plato doesn't 'think'. Thinking, as we understand the use of the word, came along with the Christain 'thinkers' as did the notion of 'the mind'. In the Ancient Greek world there was no 'inner' as we now understand it - no 'mental stuff'. No one 'read in silent speech' back then - or, as we would now call it, speaking aloud

    Kant was just another Platonist - taking philosophy away from THE WORLD AND the society we inhibit. The only difference is 'his theory of the forms' occurred in 'his head' - an 'architecture of the mind'. His most sphinx like immitation of Plato occurs in his repudation of aristophanes tale of love (due to annoying the gods, we were torn apart wandering the earth looking for our 'better half'). Kant, in his 'appeal' to autonomony (like Plato) rejects this position 'arguing' that one can only 'have' love by being 'free from the other' - not surprising given his life.

    Q. How did the first 'prisoner' of the cave 'escape' - did he fall over his shoe laces? Q. How did Kant get special privilege concerning the words he wrote with?

    we talk we utter words and only later get a picture of their life